How to Write Headlines for Beginner Copywriters

Presented live on Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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Two things about writing headlines:

1. It helps to write the headline last, not first. 2. You should write 50 headlines. Not just 1.

To that first point… now that you know you don’t have to start a page or ad by writing the headline, all you have to do is, well, stop letting the headline keep you from writing the whole piece.

But to the second point…

The one about writing 50 headlines…

Here’s the thing:

Almost nobody writes 50 headlines before choosing one or before creating a shortlist of options to split-test, validate, etc.

But the best copywriters on the planet ALWAYS write AT LEAST 50 versions of a headline.

So if you’re newer to copywriting…

Join us for today’s Tutorial Tuesday, which is a total refresher on how to write headlines that actually work. By which I mean they don’t just sit there lifelessly on the page, doing nothing* and taking up valuable real estate. Instead, they capture attention and help to build legit interest in your brand, your product, your offer and more….

Conversion copywriter, Joanna Wiebe is smiling into the camera as she prepares to deliver a presentation on how to organize your copywriting research.


Joanna Wiebe: All right, you guys ready. This is a beginner copywriting Tutorial Tuesday.

But it’s fundamental more than anything. This is foundational stuff. You have got to know this stuff before you can do anything more. And sometimes we get really, really far ahead in the work that we do and you know, you’re advanced, you’re doing personalization across websites, but you’ve gone so quickly into doing the more advanced stuff that you kind of let the essential stuff vanish a bit.

You’re like, I’ll get good at headlines later. Today is the day. Today we’re going to get good at headlines. Are you ready?

What to Expect in This Tutorial [00:46]

Headlines. Now, one of the big things, there’s so much to say about headlines. Now, I wanted to focus today on getting more headlines written so a lot of people are writing one headline and going with it. If you think that’s not you, I challenge you. I believe that is you. Because it’s me sometimes too. I’ve done this, I’ve been like, oh, this headline sounds perfect. We don’t need to try any others go with that one.

But you’re kind of leaving a lot on the table. It could be a really solid starting point, or it might be the one you get back to in the end, and say, like, yep, that actually is the best one to go with. But you need to get more options out there. You need to get more options on the page before you can say that’s the winner. Before anybody can say that’s the winner.

Write 50 Different Headlines [01:31]

So you want to write 50 different headlines every single time you write anything that has a headline. At least 50. And I’m not saying small variations on headlines where you’re changing a single word. And that brings you to like 30 different options. I don’t know how that would work, but I’m talking about a range of headlines. Trying things that are dumb. Trying things that are super exciting, using words that will never make it to the end, such as, secret.

You might never end up saying the word secret on the page, but it might be a good word to use when you’re coming up with a lot of different ideas. Because there are no bad ideas when you are brainstorming and that is ultimately what’s going on when you’re writing 50 different headlines.

You are flying through brainstorming a whole bunch of things. Sometimes that’s inspired by voice of customer data, a lot of times that’s inspired by voice of customer data. But sometimes it’ll just be the idea started out and you’re just going to fly through a bunch of different options. Okay.

Write dozens and dozens and dozens. 50 is the minimum, 50 is not the max, you don’t get a 40 to 50 range. We’re talking at least 50 headlines. You will grow by doing this. You will get better and better and better by doing this. So 50 different headlines, that’s what we’re keeping in mind. Now, how do you get there? How do you iterate? How do you not get stuck in the same old ideas?

How do You Generate 50 Different Headlines? [03:01]

We’re going to get into just a quick couple of ways to generate new headline ideas, you can keep writing them. To be really clear. There are so many different things you can do so at the end of this, if you’re like, I have my own ideas, it might help people. Go ahead and throw those in chat because others will probably benefit from you saying like, oh, this is what I do.

Include a Time Limit [03:20]

Well, let’s start off with the first one. You wrote a headline, you’re going to now go in and include some form of time limit. Okay, so we’re going to go through and we’re going to show some examples of this changing. This is or something like that. It’s the Canadian one.

But we’re going to go through and we’re not going to necessarily work on “all-in-one small business accounting software,” that headline, mostly because SEO generally owns the H1. That’s an H1. All in one heading one. It’s why, or header one depending, but the h1 is like really keyword rich. And so it’s very difficult when you’re writing for the web, at least for you as a copywriter to talk in SEO or anybody else on the team into removing keyword phrases.

So instead of working on the H1. Right now we’re going to work on the H2. The one down here. The first H2. Bring your financials into focus. We’re going to go through and apply these different techniques that I’m talking about to quickly pop through, whip out some ideas. Okay.

So if the core is bring your financials into focus. How do we write, that’s headline 1 on your list of 50. How do we now move to make that better? So the first tip was include a time limit. So “bring your financials into focus,” turns into, “bring your financials into focus by this time next week.” Great. You’ve got two headlines. Cool. What do we do next?

Make it an Open-Ended or Curiosity-Piquing Question [04:44]

Next up, make it an open ended or curiosity peaking question. Alright, so, and do take notes or screenshots along the way. This replay will be available later, of course. But you want to make it open-ended or curiosity-piquing, not closed, not yes or no questions, just try your best to avoid them. Sometimes they work, most of the time they’re just a terrible trap. Curiosity peaking is also going to be like opening some sort of gap. Okay.

“What if you could bring your financials into focus by this time next week?” So we’re keeping the time frame thing, we’re asking a question. It’s opening up someone’s mind like, what if I could? This does not mean any of the headlines that we’re going through are the perfect headline. You are not editing your headlines as you go. You’re just pushing more ideas on the page, don’t edit yourself. Don’t stop yourself, just put them on the page. This might never ever see the light of day, and that is not the point. We’re not trying to write the perfect headline. We’re trying to generate lots of good headline ideas.

Another question. “Will you go another week with flabby unfocused financials?” So, that is a closed ended question, but it’s more opening up this idea of, Oh damn, I’ve been going weeks with flabby unfocused financials, that sounds crazy. I don’t want that.

Replace Lifeless Words with Interesting Words [06:00]

Okay, next up, replace lifeless words with interesting words. So, “bring your financials into focus” is clearly dull, nobody gives a shit about a single word in that. So what are we going to do? How can we actually bring that to life without compromising the brand? Right, because

the QuickBooks brand has its own voice, but whoever you’re writing for including your own business, you have your own voice. You need to make sure that you stay on brand and use the right words.

But try to explore interesting words instead of just the most obvious marketing speak out there. So, words like that include everything showing here. And again, you are just trying things so blank destroyer, depending on what the thing that you’re selling destroys.

Words like poof, that’s visual, I can see that on the page. I look at it, and something happens. I’m drawn to the word. It’s like a really eye catching word. Words that you’re not used to seeing like atomic. What’s that doing on there? It’s a nice quick little word, and I’m not used to seeing it in marketing copy.

Then other words like what are the Germans saying? The Germans have all sorts of incredible words can you pull in words from what we have already pulled in wunderkind, zeitgeist, wanderlust, verboten. These are words that you can push into an otherwise boring sentence and still get the same message across. Not if you just throw them in randomly obviously you have to, it has to be meaningful in there. But you can still do something with it.

Where then your prospect is more likely to actually notice what’s on the page instead of just like glazing over it. And to be fair, most marketing copy is written in the hopes that people will just passively consume it, and walk away, it slides over them like it’s nothing. It doesn’t try to stop. There’s no friction involved, it tries to remove all the friction. We want to push some friction back in there, not user friction, but something to stop the eye.

The otherwise terribly bored eye. And then a whole bunch of other words down there, that again, you just want to start pushing those in. Try a bunch of different options. “Bring your fuzzy financials into focus.” Okay, we knew, bring your financials and the focus was QuickBooks trying to use alliteration. We can push that further, we can still do what the marketer’s going to be happy with by using that alliteration. But use a different word.

What’s a fuzzy financial? That’s something that I might actually remember when I walk away, versus bring your financials into focus. “Focus financials are the zeitgeist of your business.” Okay, what? So again, pushing in words that you’re not used to seeing in marketing copy.

Replace Empty Words with Word Pictures [08:40]

Four. Replace empty words with word pictures. This is hard. This is hard. Once you’re in, like, you know, headline 27 or 28 and you’re losing steam, you’re probably ready for word pictures. This is hard. It’s like if you do Peloton and you’re on the bike, and you’re going through and you increase the resistance a lot and your legs are really heavy. That’s the moment you’re at here where you’re like, oh, I hate this, but I gotta get through this. So I’m going to do it.

Empty words, word pictures. You need to try putting some visuals on the page. “Like a magnifying glass for your business financials.” Again, it’s not perfect, probably not going to the light of day. But it’s something else. It’s pushing you. It’s making you try new things.

“Like a heart rate monitor for your business finances.” Something visual, at least, at least your prospect is likely to pay attention at this point it’s going to wake them up.

Break Out of the Word-Choice Lock with a Good ol’ Formula [09:33]

Alright, we’re going to go with breaking out of the word choice, a lock that got you with a good old fashioned formula. If you’re not referencing formulas, you are not copywriting yet. You are just doing marketing, whatever, but you need to get into copywriting by referencing formulas. Keep a swipe file. If you’re like once a swipe file? Google swipe file or go on to and search swipe file. It’s all in there.

Gene Schwartz. Great place to go. You don’t have to keep a swipe file of your own necessarily.

That’s because Google Images is an incredible swipe file just sitting there waiting for you. To do a Google image search on Eugene Schwartz, to see what it turns up, or other copywriters, John Caples, David Ogilvy see what comes up and use that to drive new ideas.

“Now turn your,” sorry, I forgot this one. Yeah, “your mind into a mental magnet.” Okay, that’s really visual, what the hell? He didn’t write this on his first try. He did not write this on the first try, you have to do more. “Food is your best medicine.” Interesting. What are you talking about food is my best medicine. Take these, use them. Push. This is where you train yourself to do it. It’s not going to be obvious. Not going to be like Food is your best, because if you’re not writing about food, it has nothing to do with it. But what can you do with that formula? Can you do anything?

“Financial clarity is your best growth engine.” Potential, right? It’s taking that stillborn shit though. Because it’s like talking about financial clarity. We’re unlikely to do this, but we would keep pushing through. Use this to generate more better ideas.

Throw it all Out and Start From Scratch [11:15]

Okay. And that brings us to the last one, which is just throw it all out and start from scratch.

That’s the hard truth. Sometimes you have worked so hard at an idea. I picture dough, I’m not a baker. I don’t come from a line of bakers. However, I think we all know that when you need dough too long, you’ve been working it too long, it turns into a hard lump. Nothing’s going to come of it. Throw it out. Start again.

It is a technique that the best copywriters use. Don’t be afraid to throw it all out. Delete it from your Google Doc. Let it go, let it go. It doesn’t have to ever be part of anything that makes it onto the page. If it was great, it will come back to you. You will remember it, or a new version of that great headline will come back to you.

But be courageous enough to throw it out if it’s not working. Delete. Start again. Take a break. Go back and start again.

The 3 Person Exercise [12:09]

Okay and this can all be really quickly summed up in, are you writing headlines that pass this basic exercise? So it’s the three person exercise. So imagine three people, not 100 people, you’re writing for. There’s tons of people who will read your copy. But think about three people.

They’re standing in a parking lot bored, or they’re at their desk collaborating on something and they’re bored. Can you write, do the headlines you write actually engage them? Do they capture their attention, or not? If they don’t, they probably are not good enough. You need to keep pushing it.

If a lot of your headlines do not pass this test, then you need to write more than 50; you need to write 100. You need to push it until you get to a place where you’re so uncomfortable because you’ve been trying so hard that you actually have headlines that are more likely to get these people to have this reaction we’re seeing here. If you want it to be funny, they should be laughing hard. If you want it to be terrifying, which hopefully none of us do, then they should be terrified.

But that’s really the question. So I do have an exercise for you, but I’m aware that we’re at the end of our time. What I would like you to do, I think everybody should try this. Just turn out one new headline right now. Using this “all the pieces you need to run business smoothly.” Can you take anything we’ve learned today and write a new headline right now.

Do it right now, chat it over to us when you’ve written it. I want to see it. “All the pieces you need to run business smoothly.” Can you do anything with that? And I’m going to go out of this mode. Haha. Chris said make your business run faster than Usain Bolt. Awesome. Anybody else have any more?

“Do you have the tools to run business smoothly?” “Oil your business with these pieces.” “Like WD-40 for your business finances.” Put your business jigsaw together.” “What if you had all the pieces you need to run your business smoothly?” Okay, cool. Any others?

“The puzzle pieces of your business come together into a beautiful picture.” “Are you better than a robort, oh a robot, maybe? I don’t know what a robort is, maybe it’s a thing! “to run your business.” “All the pieces you need today to run a small business, take charge and charge, maybe change, your business.”

“Don’t lose control, wrangle all your cats in one place.” So we can see that we’re generating lots of different ideas here right now. A wide range of ideas. And that’s the sort of place you need to get to when you’re writing your copy. A range, not sticking into one topic, and just focusing endlessly on it. But blow it up.

Try different things as everybody here just did. Priscilla says, “your business can run like a slip and slide.” Daniel says, “What does it look like when the pieces around your business come together?” Michael says, “Discover how to run your business like a well oiled machine.”

Awesome. Okay, cool. So you’ve tried it, keep trying it. Do this, it’s your job. It’s not optional. It’s your job. All right, that is all. The replay will be up shortly. We have our intermediate lesson next week with Jill Quick coming in. Ange, Thank you so much for your help today. And thanks everyone for chatting too. We will see you in our next Tutorial Tuesdays. Stay safe. Have a great rest of your day or night. Bye.

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